Taking on Sprawl-Mart Sprawl-Busting, Community by Community: An Interview with Al Norman

Al Norman achieved national attention in the United States in 1993 when he helped stop Wal-Mart from locating in his hometown of Greenfield, Massachusetts. Since then, he has created Sprawl-Busters and served as a consultant to community groups around the United States and the world that are trying to stop the expansion of Wal-Mart and other big box retail developers. "60 Minutes" called Norman "the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement."

Multinational Monitor: How did Sprawl-Busters get started?

Al Norman: By accident.

In 1993, my hometown of Greenfield, Massachusetts was approached by a Wal-Mart proposal for roughly 65 acres on the edge of town. It was a backdoor approach that would have had a very significant economic impact on our classic New England downtown. I was asked to get involved in trying to produce a voter referendum on whether the land that Wal-Mart wanted, which was industrial, should be rezoned to commercial.

My first response was, "Who cares? Wal-Marté isn't that just a place where you get cheap underwear? Why should I care?" Like most consumers, I hadn't thought through what the company represented, what it might do to my town, to the business community, to the quality of life in the community.

I would consider it an example of accidental activism. It was totally a random accident that I got involved in the campaign. Once we beat Wal-Mart at the polls, my phone started ringing off the hook, I was talking to national media, and one thing led to another. I started publishing a newsletter, the Sprawl-Busters Alert, then in the mid-1990s decided that going on the Internet made more sense; later, in 1999, I wrote a book, Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart.

One thing just followed after another--it was really a question of supply and demand; I was getting a lot of requests to talk about how it might be possible to stop the spread of sprawl in hometown America.

MM: What are communities' key concerns about Wal-Mart's proliferation?

Norman: It falls onto three levels: economic, quality of life or social issues, and environmental concerns.

On the economic level, there is a great concern that big box development is not a form of economic development, but a form of economic displacement. Instead of providing a shot in the arm to the local economy, people are worried that it will create a shot to the head, causing a lot of dislocation.

The social, quality-of-life level is that they don't sell small town quality of life on any Wal-Mart shelf, and once they take it from you, you can't buy it back from them at any price. Many feel that Wal-Mart is a great big push into suburbanization; that the small town character and unique sense of place would be destroyed by the anonymous big box retailer.

The environmental issues are many, and relate also to quality-of-life concerns: congestion, air quality, storm water runoff problems, pollution of streams, visual pollution, noise pollution-- the side effects that come with an extremely large asphalt and concrete facility. Because we are talking about stores that can be as big as five or six football fields, plus the parking lot, which is of equal size.

MM: As Wal-Mart moves from small towns into suburban and even urban areas, do the same set of concerns apply?

Norman: Absolutely. In an urban area, you are talking more in terms of neighborhood by neighborhood, as opposed to a whole town. All of us live in some enclave or another. It may be called the west side of town, it may be called 145th street, it may just be a neighborhood. But all of us have a trade area that we live in. They are usually pretty small. A Wal-Mart supercenter might have a trade area of 10 square miles. It really doesn't matter whether that trade area is more densely urban or more rural, a lot of the impacts are similar, though not identical.

When Wal-Mart wanted to locate in the Garden District of New Orleans, it generated the same kind of unhappiness and concerns that we saw in a little town like Houma, Louisiana. Big town or small town, citizens have a strong sense of protection for that unique sense of place.

MM: Is it correct to view Wal-Mart as emblematic of a style of development of a larger set of retailers?

Norman: Yes, emblematic is the perfect word.

I don't discriminate against these stores based on the logo on their walls. We have the same bones to pick with Home Depot, Lowe's, Target, Kohl's, even companies like Rite Aid and CVS.

All of these issues are relative in terms of size. I've worked with small communities in New Hampshire, for example, who were upset by a 12,000 square foot store. Somebody in another community might be upset by a 120,000 square foot store.

The idea is unwanted, corporate brand development, versus small, locally owned enterprises-- it is a conflict between those two.

MM: All of the chains operate in the marketplace. What is your response to the notion that the marketplace should make the decision about whether the large box store or the small locally owned storefront prospers?

Norman: The marketplace has nothing to do with zoning. They are two separate worlds.

Wal-Mart likes to talk about the right to shop. Of course, there is no 28th Amendment called the right to shop. Wal-Mart does not have a right to locate a 200,000 square foot store next to a residential subdivision. It is simply not anywhere in the Constitution. The residents who live there do have a First Amendment right to petition government to stop it.

We're not talking about the free market, we are talking about communities being able to talk about the way they look and feel and are experienced by the residents who live there. For example, a community has the right to regulate the size and location and use of land. It is a six letter word called zoning. Zoning says to Wal-Mart, you are welcome to do business here, but we don't want you to be larger than 60,000 square feet, for example.

Regulating where these facilities can locate and how big they are does have an impact on the way these companies do business, of course, but I think it is perfectly appropriate for communities to use zoning to protect themselves.

MM: Once a zoning decision has been made that enables box stores to come in, do communities still have tools to deal with them, or is it a done deal at that point?

Norman: If a big box retailer has a building permit and starts to build, the only things the community can do are, number one, not shop there, though that is not a very realistic expectation on some levels; and, number two, make sure that the loophole that allowed that facility to get in in the first place is closed.

Some people tell me, "We have four or five of these big stores, it is too late for us." I say that it is never too late to start off on good zoning, because a lot of these stores will come and go, others are coming, and they are not going to be around that long to begin with. These buildings that they are putting up are maybe good for 20 years on the outside. They are very cheaply constructed, they are not meant to last, like the buildings that were in many downtowns and 100 years later are still around--this is transitory. Any time a town wants to reinvent its zoning to regulate size and use is a good time.

MM: What is the profile of a typical community campaign against the box stores?

Norman: I outline this in my book. There are essentially four critical ingredients to any successful campaign. Number one, you have to have a broad-based citizens group that draws residents from a wide variety of backgrounds. Number two, you have to have constant visibility before the public--usually through the media, letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, news articles--to help mold public opinion. Number three, you have to have access to a decent land-use attorney and other experts like traffic engineers to make your case based on facts, not just emotion. Number four, you have to pay for the lawyer and other experts and any other visibility that you want to generate, like media ads.

With those four elements in place, you have a fighting chance. Without them, you have a more difficult challenge.

There is a fifth ingredient, beyond anyone's control in the short term, which is political support. Having local officials fighting their own citizens is a tough thing to overcome. Most local officials are usually, as we say in Massachusetts, in the tank with Wal-Mart. They may not have any analysis that tells them why they are supporting Wal-Mart, but they are there anyway, because they think it means jobs and taxes. But having local officials on a town council who are with you, can shut down a big box project very quickly. Wal-Mart does not like to go uphill against a city council.

MM: Do the community groups that oppose Wal-Mart or a new box store usually exist in advance of a proposal for a new store; or are the group usually marshaled in response to the proposal for a new store?

Norman: They usually have to be created. When a Wal-Mart wants to locate near a residential subdivision, however, you'll usually find a residents association that knows what to do. However, in many cases, a citizens group has to be created from scratch.

Often you'll see the names of community groups that have the word "first" in their names-- like in Henderson, Kentucky, Henderson First; in Massachusetts, we had a group called Leominister First; in Texas, Lakeview First. I tell people to use that name because it is positive and upbeat.

What does it mean for a group to call itself Leominister First? It means that the homeowners and residents and taxpayers of Leominister come first, and the out-of-state developers come second.

Often these groups are ad hoc groups thrown together for this specific purpose. After the battle, they may dissolve into the community, to be reassembled later, if needed.

MM: Are there qualities in communities that make them more or less likely to band together to oppose a new store?

Norman: It helps for communities to have a sense of empowerment, and a tradition of citizen involvement in municipal affairs. There are some communities where the residents feel powerless and have no sense of voice in City Hall, and that makes it harder to organize. This is not just based on the economics--simply on the median income in a community--it is really based on how local officials have treated their people over the years. For example, whether you have a very strong mayor who has run a little fiefdom and kept the serfs unenlightened, or whether you have a city council that has a lot of activists on it.

Generally speaking, where citizens feel that they have an entitlement, some power, there will be a better opportunity to organize a citizens group.

MM: How does Wal-Mart typically respond to local opposition?

Norman: Over the years, they have learned to imitate us. They try to create a shadow group that does everything the citizens group does. So on the one hand you have a grassroots citizens group forming; and on the other hand you have an Astroturf group formed by Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart will create a citizens group, they will fund it, they will invest in a PR firm to help guide it. The great advantage they have is that they can spend a lot of money putting together an effort that includes petitions, direct mailing, calling, whatever it takes. On the other hand, you have the grassroots citizens who are holding a carwash to raise money to fight the world's largest retailer. It is not a level playing field.

MM: What is the best way for legitimate grassroots groups to respond to those kinds of Astroturf operations?

Norman: To tell the truth about what is happening, and, if possible, to reveal how much Wal-Mart is spending on their effort. Any time there is a referendum, as we have now several going on in California, at some point Wal-Mart has to file a public report about how much money they have put in the campaign. And we find out they have spent $300,000 or $400,000 in a little town to win a vote.

We have been able to beat them at the ballot box, notwithstanding the enormous resources that they have dropped into these campaigns, but it does make it very difficult when your opponent has very deep pockets.

Community groups can win, if they tell the truth about what their position is, try to state clearly what is at stake if these big projects saturate their community, and just rely on the common sense of voters to see through Wal-Mart's pitch.

When Wal-Mart says we are going to bring jobs and pay taxes, and at the same time people see local stores and regional stores and national chains all over the country going out of business, they have to question whether this is really of any economic value. When people open up the paper and see the toy industry being decimated--with FAO Schwartz going out of business, KB Toys shutting down its stores--or companies like K-Mart cut in half, and Montgomery Ward going under, or the 13,000 grocery store closures since 1990, then they are more open to raising questions about companies like Wal-Mart and their business practices. When people look at that record, and they see empty, dead stores locally, they have to think, "Maybe this is not economically going to be healthy for our community."

MM: How frequently are Wal-Mart and other of the big box stores facing opposition when they propose a new store?

Norman: I estimate that at least a third of their proposals are now being challenged, maybe more.

MM: Is that true of all of the chains, or just Wal-Mart?

Norman: I'm really thinking of Wal-Mart. Home Depot gets a similar level of challenge. Wal-Mart and Home Depot--because they are the most prolific, they are metastasizing the most, they are the most well known in terms of community groups opposing them--generate the most opposition. Some of the other stores are just very well known.

Where I live, in Western Massachusetts, Home Depot proposed three or four stores, and every single one of them throughout this valley was challenged by a citizens group.

What is interesting about the number of these challenges to new store proposals is that they are throwing off the timetable for the new outlets, significantly. In almost every case where citizens challenge a big box retailer, the timeline for getting an approval can go from in some cases from two months to two years. So even if they are not stopped, they are delayed by years--and every year represents hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales. If a citizens group hangs in there and goes to court, these things can last three years or longer. I've even seen some that go on for 10 years.

MM: How frequently do the citizens groups succeed in stopping the box stores? Norman: I don't keep a box score, intentionally. My philosophy is: every time matters.

I have a page on my website called "newsflash" where I put up stories that I think are inspiring. I tend not to put up the stories that are depressing, because I'm trying to inspire people to fight, not to give up. So a couple weeks ago, when we beat them in Hood River, Oregon, or Stoughton, Wisconsin, I put the victories on my website.

And I have a page called "Victorious Secret," which has a list of a couple hundred communities that have beaten a big box retailer at least once. I call it Victorious Secret, because Wal-Mart does not want people to know that they are vulnerable.

I'm sure that we lose more than we win, because the table is entirely slanted. It is remarkable that we can muster the strength to fight off these giant corporations at all, given the slingshot coalitions that have to be formed. But I think we do pretty well, and I think Wal-Mart and Home Depot and other companies watch us like hawks, and are very concerned about having what used to be pro forma permit applications get mired in bureaucracy and delay. I think they are very affected by it.

MM: Do you find instances where developers change their proposals to try to address the local concerns, by shrinking the size of the store, for example?

Norman: Yes.

There's a funny story on my website from Tampa, where Wal-Mart recently unveiled a 99,000 square foot store. This is a joke because a lot of the caps that are put in place by communities start at 100,000. The idea was that Wal-Mart was unveiling a smaller prototype that could fly under the radar of these caps on size.

But generally, if communities tell developers--I don't care if it is Wal-Mart or any other retailer--what they want, these big companies will have a choice: give them what they want, or leave. I think they will give them what they want.

For example, we've been pushing for years that companies like Wal-Mart and Home Depot build on two floors. It would cut their footprint in half, and when you're talking about a store that is going to be 160,000 square feet, if you can get them to build that store--which I still think is too large--on two stories, then you have freed up two acres for green space.

I believe that if you don't ask, you don't get. Communities have to learn to be more aggressive. They are afraid that if they say anything, they will lose their precious applicant. Because some of these mayors think having Wal-Mart come to town is like being touched by Elvis. They don't want to jeopardize getting their retail Elvis, so they will do anything, even things that are harmful to their own community and the economic middle class. We're saying, you can be a lot tougher: you can negotiate tougher, you can make your zoning code tougher, and you'll get what you want. But you have to push for it; it is not going to be given to you.

MM: Is your long-term strategy to keep fighting all these local fights and hope that eventually communities strengthen themselves, or is there a different vision of how to deal with the big box development problem?

Norman: My vision is still on the town-by-town frontline battle. But I'm also trying to spend more time focused not on Wal-Mart, but on Wal-Mart shoppers.

Ultimately, the battle will be won or lost in the aisles. If I can, in some small way, encourage people to stay out of the aisles at Wal-Mart, we can help bring this company down to a more reasonable level.

For example, if we can start to affect sales growth at Wal-Mart, it will have a direct effect on stock price, which will have a direct impact on company policy, and maybe help correct some of the arrogant methods that Wal-Mart has used to get its way into heartland America. Ultimately the change in attitude will not come from Wal-Mart, it has to come from their customers. Their customers are boss.

We can make a difference if Wal-Mart customers start saying, "I'm uncomfortable shopping here. I don't like your labor policies, I don't like your environmental policies, I don't like the way you treat neighbors, I don't like the way you push your way into towns, I don't like your low-wage Chinese imports." If we can get people to say all that by not shopping--if we can build the friends-don't-let-friends-shop-at-Wal-Mart consciousness, I think we can have a big impact at Wal-Mart.

They are very vulnerable. They are such a juggernaut, they are whirling so fast, that anything that starts to knock them off kilter could upset that rhythm.

© Multinational Monitor Jan/Feb 2004